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Memorial Day Reflections: Why the Military Prefers a Mercenary Army


When I write and speak I often strive to make important connections that ideological authorities tend to hide between seemingly disparate and unrelated phenomena.  In the eighteenth number of my semi-weekly Empire and Inequality Report, subtitled "Liberal Empire Denial and the Civilian-Military Disconnect,"  I tried to draw out some relevant links between four problems that “mainstream” U.S. political culture has a hard time seeing both in and of themselves and in relation to each other:

  1. The imperialist nature of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
  2. The class nature of who “serves” and who doesn’t in the war on Iraq.
  3. The mercenary nature of the U.S. armed forces.
  4. The inability of most Americans to wrap their minds around the reality of what’s happening to American GIs during and after deployment to Iraq.

Why does the U.S. military rely on a mercenary (“volunteer”) army of mostly working-class soldiers and not on a compulsory national draft? As Noam Chomsky observed in explaining why he doubted that Bush administration planners would call for a draft in response to the deepening quagmire in Iraq in December 2004:

“The military command, and the civilian leadership, learned an important lesson in Vietnam: you can't expect a citizen's army to fight a vicious, brutal colonial war. Their predecessors knew that. The British, French, etc., provided the officer corps, special forces, and professional military, but relied on the Foreign Legion, Ghurkas, Indian troops, and other mercenaries. That's standard. The US made a serious tactical error in this regard in Vietnam — though it had plenty of mercenaries too: South Korean, Thai, and others. In Iraq, the US is using what amounts to a mercenary army of the disadvantaged, and the second largest military force is the ‘private’ companies made up of ex-military officers, South African killers, etc.”  

“In Vietnam, the army collapsed from within: drugs, killing officers, etc. Citizens are not trained killers, and they are not sufficiently dissociated from the civilian culture at home to fight colonial wars properly. The top brass wanted the army out, before it fell apart. And the civilian leadership agreed”.  

Chomsky elaborated on these comments in his 2005 interview book Imperial Ambitions (Chomsky and David Barsamian [New York, 2005, pp. 133-134): 

 “A citizens’ army has ties to the civilian culture.  In the late 1960s, for example, during the Vietnam War, a kind of rebellious culture in many respects and civilizing culture in many respects spilled over into the military, and it helped undermine the military, which is a very good thing.  That’s why no imperial power has used the citizens’ army to fight an imperial war.  If you take a look at the British in India, the French in West Africa, or South Africans in Angola, they essentially relied on mercenaries,which makes sense.  Mercenaries are trained killers, but people who are too close to civilian society are not really going to be good at killing people.”  

Ruling class preference for the use of professional, non- citizen soldiers (both public and private) to enforce global empire lay behind the fact that so many ordinary Americans are experientially removed from the realities of the Iraq invasion. That preference produces a de facto mercenary army, composed of a separate class or stratum of people for whom preparation for and execution of war is a distinct way of life and a source of material support.  

U.S. reliance on a mercenary army helps explain the civilian-military chasm that becomes so painfully evident to U.S. GIs when they return from Iraq.  

These are things worth thinking about on Memorial Day.  Millions of Americans will make passing reference to the nation’s “fallen heroes” today. They will enjoy barbecues and beer in the company of friends and family.  They will eat off paper plates colored red, white and blue.  They will drink out of cups marked by stars and stripes. They will say nice things about the military, which enjoys a highly esteemed position in national opinion polls.   

And then most good Americans will proceed to continue essentially ignoring the fact that American GIs are dying and killing (U.S. forces are doing more of the latter) in an illegal, immoral, brazenly imperialist, and inherently mass-murderous occupation that has nothing to do with spreading “democracy” and everything to do with U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil resources. 

Americans might express antiwar opinions to opinion pollsters but the ugly truth is that proportionately few civilian Americans could care less about (a) the war; (b) the GIs fighting and dying in it; or (c) the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have perished prematurely because of "Occupation Iraqi Freedom" (OIF).    

The war is simply not a big concern to most Americans. We don’t have anything to do with it and we don’t want to.  

The leading domestic price of Washington’s criminal oil imperialism is heaped on the shoulders of politically marginal working- and lower-class others.  The Iraq War is their problem. 

We’ve got our own lives and needs and dreams to preoccupy us, along with “American Idol” and “Desperate Housewives.”  We claim otherwise but we really don’t give a damn.  The people who get sucked into the deadly execution of our bloody foreign policy tend to come from the other side of the tracks. 

In the spring of 2003 a professor I know at Northern Illinois University asked her 120-student U.S. History survey class how many of them supported Bush’s imminent invasion of Iraq.  One hundred hands went up.  Then she asked how many of them would be willing to fight in the war on Iraq.  One hand stayed up; it was a ROTC kid.  

“Go troops, we love you!”  

“Gee, sorry about those haunting images, suicidal thoughts, ruined marriages and missing limbs.  Sorry, we don’t have any extra change today. We’re not willing to pay taxes to fund the VA properly.  We’re heading to Europe this summer and the airline tickets are murder thanks to these horrible gas prices.” 

“Thanks for your service. You're doing a lot for the country. Feel your pain. Gotta go." 

"Good luck with that post-traumatic stress syndrome. You seem angry.”  

This is how the War Masters want it. There is conscious "elite" policy behind this civilian-military disconnect.   

And there’s a reason they are not asking most of us to “sacrifice” for the war.  Beneath grandiose White House claims of defending  “civilization” from “barbarism,” OIF is a dirty colonial war the power “elite” understandably wishes to keep as separate as possible from normal civilian experience.   

If we must have a military, it should be based on a citizen’s draft.  It should be a citizen's army, something that would make it much more difficult for warmongers like Bush and Cheney to launch criminal adventures like the invasion of Iraq in the first place.  

 “You can't expect a citizen's army to fight a vicious, brutal colonial war.”       

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